CENTRAL IRAQThere is a lot of humor in the foxholes. But it isn't the sort a civilian would understand. It's doubtful a near miss by an enemy sniper would bring a smile or a laugh to those standing nearby in a different settingon a New York City street corner, for instance. But things are different here, in the dirt, and in danger. You take whatever laughs you can, and even nervous laughter has its place.
Out here on the main route supply (MRS), it's the absurdity of life that keeps men smiling, the thoughts of a place back home that keeps them dug in tight and looking to the end. Bathroom humor is funny, perhaps the most humorous subject a marine can muster. There is no bathroom, after all, and how else do you deal with the danger of working the line?
What's not funny: the thought of running out of smokes or dip. The meals ready to eat (MRE) are nutritious and every soldier looks forward to a pack with some Skittles or Charms. But this isn't the real fuel for many marines, and they don't want to hear about what's bad for their health. They know what gets them through the day. "They say smoking kills, but cigarettes are a real morale booster out here," says Pfc. Joshua Holden, 19, of Alba, Mo. "Iraq is not the place you want to quit." He pulls another Marlboro out of the pack as the marines at his machine-gun position nod in agreement, then return to scanning the horizon for signs of enemy approach. Lance Cpl. Douglas Osborne, 21, of Muncie, Ind., whispers that he is already out of smokes: "I've got to keep bumming off these guys," he says. "They're not too happy about it."
For the first moment they can remember, the sky is clear blue. It's a beautiful if disconcerting sight after days of 70 mph winds, vicious sandstorms, and sudden rains. The harshness of the trail can still be mapped on the faces of these soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, a mix of brownish-red mud and white dust caked around their eyes and in their ears, and blotched about on their cheeks. They think they look like bad pop stars and call out to one another: "Hey, Boy George."
Although the elements have been a trial for these soldiers, it's the waiting that really wears them down. They're getting plenty of sleep right now, the marines sayat least five or six hours most days. But the time awake is full of dread. Much of life is now a waiting game, with hours a day spent cleaning and recleaning their weapons. Dirt finds its way into every crevice; rust appears on barrels almost every morning. "Busy" is guard duty, where the body stands almost still but the mind races. Guarding the road carries the most stress, with some nights so dark the marines can barely see their hands in front of their faces. "At night you start seeing shadows and you're on edge," says Osborne.
"You don't know if the enemy is there or not," he adds, noting that a sudden cry of "Gas! Gas! Gas!" last night didn't help his nerves.
Thoughts of homeand making it homekeep marines centered on the job at hand. It's about all they have now since letters are not reaching this far down the line anymore. They talk about their families and what they will do after Iraq. Osborne will get a drink. After all, he had the misfortune to turn 21 in Kuwait earlier this montha country so devoid of alcohol even reporters found it nearly impossible to forage a drink. Holden says he'll be looking for a big, fat steak. "Hey, aren't you going to have a shower first?" asks Lance Cpl. Nicholas Whittington, 22. "I'll shower and call my folks after the steak," Holden replies as Whittington laughs. But Holden isn't kidding.
Holden is as certain about this as he is about going home. The thought of not reaching that goal is not an option, despite the likelihood that their battle will be taken to Baghdad and the Republican Guard. All of them say there will be Marine casualties, but none think it might be them. "Everyone knows it's not going to be easy," says Whittington.
But that's why they send in the marines, adds Holden. "Our military is too superior. They've got T-55 tanks that were built in the 1950s that are no match for our Abrams. They can't even fire their main cannon without stopping," says Holden, who joined the military "to make a difference" and joined the Marines "because they are the baddest of the bad."
Other marines begin to come up and down the line, handing out today's MREs. Meatloaf with gravy for one, chicken with noodles for another. Nobody wants the franks"wieners of death," they're called. All of these marines have plans for the future. Some want to finish here to begin life anew. "When I get back I'll be starting my life, going to college and becoming a lawyer," says Cpl. Markos Eugenios, 22, of Los Gatos, Calif.
As they eat, the marines think about what might improve Iraq in the end. Everyone agrees that getting rid of Saddam Hussein would be a plus. But there is more to do. "More hills would be nice," says Holden. Then Corporal Eugenios hit the perfect note. "Trees," he says. "This place would be great if we just had some trees." The Marines all agree.